All eyes were trained on Denard Robinson as he made his triumphant return to the Michigan Stadium turf in his final appearance before the Wolverine faithful.
But when he trotted out to the tailback spot at the beginning of Saturday’s game against Iowa, stopping a few yards short of his customary place behind center, the focus turned back to junior Devin Gardner.
It’s been Gardner who has replaced Robinson since the senior injured a nerve in his right elbow against Nebraska three weeks ago, making the move from receiver back to quarterback while playing better than could have been hoped.
With the man he replaced now beside him in the backfield, Gardner simply shined. His career day at quarterback paced Michigan in its 42-17 win, leading the Wolverine offense with such efficiency that Iowa was powerless to try and match it.
Numbers sometimes lie, but not in this case — Gardner completed 18 of his 23 passing attempts for 314 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 37 yards and three more touchdowns, bringing his total to six touchdowns.
His lone mistakes were an interception and a fumble (which Michigan recovered, but which forced the team to punt). Both miscues occurred in the fourth quarter, when the outcome had already been decided.
“He’s doing great,” said Robinson, who has topped out at five total touchdowns in one game over his 34 starts at quarterback. “He’s been playing well, and we all had faith in him and we all knew he could do it. I’m behind him 100 percent.
“He’s doing a great job and I can’t wait to see what he can do in the future.”
But the future has become now, in the wake of Robinson’s injury. Michigan coach Brady Hoke said that though the regular starting quarterback can throw the ball, he can’t do so with the effectiveness necessary to play at his normal position — hence his role on Saturday, when he spent most of the day lined up as a running back, either taking handoffs or catching short screens.
When Robinson did line up at quarterback against Iowa, it was to run the ball — only on a few occasions did he pose the threat to pass, and it turned out to be mere show to deke the Hawkeyes.
The passing was left to Gardner, as it has been for the last two weeks, with Robinson relegated to the sidelines. He was able to take advantage against a subpar Iowa defense.
Gardner found holes in the secondary with ease, allowing him to find open receivers downfield and accurately at that. Among his better throws were a 37-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree and a 51-yard strike to redshirt junior receiver Jeremy Gallon, which set up a later touchdown.
And as Gardner also displayed in his first two starts, he was able to keep plays alive against the Hawkeyes when no options presented themselves initially — the junior scrambled for several first downs, and at other times he found open receivers after he extended the plays.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said bluntly that his team “didn’t have any answers” for the Gardner-led Michigan offense, which scored its six touchdowns on its first six drives of the game. Hoke, often reluctant to heap praise on his players, said that Gardner’s performance was “pretty good.”
“A lot,” Roundtree said when asked about Gardner’s improvement since his first start against Minnesota. “He’s really calm in the huddle. … I feel like he’s really stayed humble and led this team, and is so confident in what he can do.”
Undoubtedly, part of Gardner’s success can be attributed to the regained threat of Robinson, who was effective in his new role as all-purpose player.
Hoke said he and the offensive coaches have been thinking about ways to play both explosive athletes at the same time for “18 months,” which dates to his initial months on the Michigan job. The Wolverines had placed both players on the field at times last season in what was termed the “deuce” package, and Hoke said that type of utilization is what he imagined when contemplating how Gardner and Robinson would be deployed together.
But Robinson’s injury changed that dynamic, leading to a flip flop of roles in a way, with Gardner the primary quarterback and Robinson the secondary thereat.
Gardner said he never imagined having as much success at quarterback as he’s had in his three games as starter, in which he’s totaled 834 passing yards, 13 total touchdowns and, most importantly for Michigan, three wins.
“I never thought that, because if Denard hadn’t got hurt, I’d still be playing receiver and we’d be winning games in a different way,” Gardner said. “Just thankful that I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity.”
It seems like that opportunity will remain for Gardner for the rest of the season, or at least for next week’s game against Ohio State. Hoke didn’t give a firm answer, but in saying Robinson “could” return to full-time quarterback, it appears that Gardner will keep the reins of Michigan’s offense for now.
Though redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was lost to injury, Robinson is back from his and the offense is trending firmly upward, mostly thanks to the revelation that has been Gardner’s passing.
The present and future quarterback spoke for all Wolverine fans when asked to evaluate his performance on Saturday.
“I’m happy about it,” Gardner said.